A land deal just signed in Hopewell points the way to a possible future for some of those vacant multi-acre, self-contained corporate campuses that dot the Central Jersey landscape, and which few businesses seem to want: why not let them go back to nature?

Such is the fate of the former Western Electric campus on Carter Road in Hopewell Township. In a land preservation deal finalized on April 17, most of the 360-acre 1950s-era corporate campus will become a park with walking trails. The preservation is all the more significant because developers actually did want the campus and hoped to put an 800,000 square foot office park (on the east side of the road) and a high density housing development (on the west side of the road.) A 176,000 square foot hotel and conference center on the west side will be demolished, and the existing office buildings on the east side, at 350 and 330 Carter Road will remain, with builders retaining the right to build just 20,000 square feet more of attached office space.

The deal brings to an end a decades-long battle over the future of the site that pitted developers against civic and environmental groups. Land trusts have long had their eyes on the rural piece of land, which is covered in woods and meadows and crossed by two streams, and is adjacent to other parcels of preserved open space.

Katherine Dresdner, a Hopewell resident and attorney, has led the legal and regulatory fight against developing the land since 2008 when she was hired by a group of residents who formed the Hopewell Valley Citizens Group. Dresdner, together with the New Jersey Conservation Foundation, orchestrated a complex deal that combined funding from dozen groups including the Mercer County government, the governments of five municipalities, and the donations of private citizens to buy the land for $7.5 million.

“I’m very happy with the way it worked out,” Dresdner said. “It really was a dream come true to be able to preserve this land. I felt like I was able to implement the vision that Ted Stiles had of preserving this property.”

Stiles, for whom the Ted Stiles Preserve at Baldpate Mountain is named, was a Rutgers biology professor who died in 2007. He was an early advocate of land preservation and in 1998 identified the Western Electric site as a good candidate for preservation as part of a contiguous corridor of open space and preserved farmlands starting at the property and going north to the Sourland Mountains.

Dresdner grew up in Montclair where her mother was a landscape designer and her father owned an investment counseling company. A Wellesley College alumna who earned her law degree at Rutgers, she says she has always had a passion for the environment, and makes sure to keep one or two environmental cases going at all times. Dresdner is also a master gardener and likes to grow native plants and raise monarch butterflies.

Dresdner says the cases can be quite complex. The history of the litigation over the Western Electric site is tangled at times. When the site was built in the 1950s, it was the country’s first example of a self-contained corporate campus outside of a major city. Because of its isolated location, it was also home to a bunker where the President of the United States could take shelter in a nuclear war. The long driveway at 350 Carter Road, now lined with street lights, was once usable as a presidential airfield. The company built the research lab complex, an arboretum, and the hotel/conference center that had one of the earliest examples of a solar-powered electrical system. Western Electric also converted an 1831 farmhouse on the site to office space.

In later years, AT&T and Lucent owned the campus but didn’t build anything new. Then, in 1998, the headquarters was sold to Townsend Property Trust, which went before the Hopewell Township Planning Board and asked for approval for an 800,000 square-foot office complex. The planning board approved the plan by a 5-4 vote.

Dresdner says that as part of the deal the developers agreed to build a bypass to take traffic from the site away from the village of Mount Rose, a historic crossroads community a fifth of a mile up the road. Dresden said the Planning Board changed course two years later and voted down the bypass road, meaning that the intersection at Mount Rose would have to be straightened out and improved with left turn lanes, impacting the historical village.

Meanwhile, Townsend made a deal with the town to preserve land on the west side in exchange for being able to build office space on the east side. In 2004 Townsend sold the entire property to Berwind Property Group, a private equity real estate company now known as Equus, without having built anything. In 2008, after Berwind won approval for the plan, the Stony Brook-Millstone Watershed Association asked Dresdner to represent a group of citizens. Dresdner decided to file a legal challenge to the development. She set to work fighting the development, and took Berwind to court over several issues including compliance with a new state EPA rule that forbid development within 300 feet of certain kinds of streams.

After years of legal wrangling back and forth, the state Supreme Court sided with Dresdner in 2011, and the company decided to sell the land rather than fight for the right to build offices and houses there. After more disputes over how much the company could build on its remaining land, and years of legal work later, the parties have finally reached an agreement.

The deal announced last week brings together $3.5 million from Mercer County, $2 million contribution from Hopewell Township, $500,000 from private citizens donating to the Hopewell Valley Citizens Group, and $500,000 more from the Robert Wood Johnson Charitable 1962 Trust, with the balance of the $7.5 million being made up of private donations.

Dresdner is moving on to her next challenge. She said her next fight will be against the energy pipelines that are being planned for Central New Jersey including Hopewell Valley and Princeton, in support of citizens who are opposed to them. “People just care about this kind of thing,” she says. “They don’t like it when people come in from the outside to trash where they live.”

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